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Paul Abraham: Learning self compassion

By Paul Abraham of

Sometimes we’re our own worst enemies. It’s difficult not to feel stressed if we berate ourselves for every mistake or failing. 

When you feel stressed, you need comfort, and the first person who can comfort you is yourself. 

A 2006 British study found that self-compassion – having the same forgiving attitude towards ourselves that a kind person would sow to others – deactivates the body’s alarm system. Giving yourself some compassion is key to de-stressing.

Compassion-focused therapy was developed by British psychologist Paul Gilbert and revealed that some people find it particularly difficult to manage their stress levels because they have an over-active threat-detection system. 

They identify stressors more quickly than the average person.  Gilbert recommends the following methods to become more relaxed.

Compassionate attention 

Focus on memories of giving or receiving kindness, or times when your positive qualities shone. Direct your attention to thoughts that make you feel warm and safe.

Compassionate reasoning

Avoid dwelling on feelings of shame and self-criticism, instead, use logic to find more compassionate interpretations of your situation and actions.

Compassionate behaviour

When you have to do something stressful, give yourself plenty of private encouragement.  In particular, focus on the process rather than the task – that is, appreciate the efforts you make, no matter what the result.

Compassionate imagery

Picture a compassionate figure that gives you the support you need, be it human, animal or divine – whichever feels meaningful to you.

Compassionate feeling

Work on cultivating compassionate emotions for yourself and others.

Compassionate sensation

Become more aware of how your body feels when you’re feeling compassion.  For instance, do your shoulders drop? Do your facial muscle relax?  By recognising the physical experience, you’ll be able to understand your emotions, which makes it easier to develop your compassion skills.

American psychologist Kristin Neff recommends the following “Self-compassion break” when you find yourself stressed.

  1. Identify the feeling you are suffering.  Use a phrase such as “This is stress” or “This is painful”.
  2. Remind yourself of common humanity.  Tell yourself, “Suffering is part of life” or “Everyone feels this way sometimes”.
  3. Rest your hands on your heart or adopt another comforting pose and say, “May I be compassionate to myself” or “May I have patience and strength” or another favourite affirmation.

When we’re feeling stressed, the more kindness we can show ourselves, the easier it is to manage feelings and face life’s challenges with confidence.

Paul Abraham is based in Bramley.


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